I first came across contemporary Chinese art in an exhibition at the Luxembourg Garden in Paris many years ago. The sculptures and images were riveting: not at all the classical brushwork that I’d known before. So I was very keen to visit the Factory 798 art zone in Beijing.
It was a little disappointing. It is huge, and there are striking works which you come across (I’ve blogged about some of these here), but the place as a whole is a strip mall for the arts and fashion. An example of the gentrification was the exhibition called "Miss Dior" a publicity event by Dior in a space called the Ullens Center for Contemporary Arts. The photo above is of the centerpiece: a kitschy installation made with Miss Dior bottles.
I’m sure that by now young new artists have found a cheaper place to work in.
I’ve now managed to catch up with work, more or less. At least I have the time to go through last month’s photos: deleting and tagging. Here is one I did not post earlier. The National Center for the Performing Arts is near the southwest exit of the Tian’anmen West subway station. The morning was hazy and smoggy when I took this photo, but the building still shines: like a blob of mercury.
We walked through the Summer Palace in Beijing on a very hot day. The leafy roads were protected from the hot sun. The cooling breeze from the Kunming lake gave respite from the heat. In spite of the crush of people you saw immediately on entering palace gates, the rest of the huge grounds did not seem crowded. We walked through the corridors of the palace of the Empress Dowager Longyu. She was married to the emperor when Chinese empire was already crumbling. She brought the two thousand year history of the Middle Kingdom to an end by signing the instrument of abdication in 1912 on behalf of the child emperor Puyi. China burned through the next century. It is only now that you see a new society being born.
If you know the outlines of the history of those troubled times you feel odd walking through these peaceful leafy corridors. The country was already torn apart when these halls were being refurbished for the Emperor’s consort. The European powers had burned and looted the Summer Palace twice, the Boxer rebellion had occupied it, China had lost battles to Japan. But the opulence of the palace of the last empress did not reflect this. You walk through the corridors as an exquisitely painted cat turns its back on you in contented peace from its place in the rafters, forever seeking mice in the gables. Chinese tourists walk past, cameras clicking on simulated auto.
Beijing seems to have many fathers actively doing their part in bringing up children. Here are two who are involved in taking care of their child while the wife takes the grandparents into a temple to pray. It is impossible to compose the photo when you take shots like this, because you do not want to distract the people from what they are already doing. As you can see, both fathers noticed me.
What China has more than any other country in the world is people, and it pays as a tourist to concentrate on them.
These are three successive attempts to take close ups of architectural details in Beijing’s Lama Temple. I never thought that the amount of incense burnt in a temple could possibly drive me out choking and coughing, but eventually it did. Before that I did get a few decent shots when occasionally the smoke would let off.
In the National Museum in Beijing I saw these three beautiful statues of serene Buddhas from the Ming period. The symbiosis of Buddhism and ceramics has to be seen to be believed. I was especially impressed by the large and colourful porcelain Buddha (photo below), whose buffed surface looked like any of the decorative Ming vases in an adjoining hall. If it were not for the serenity radiating from the face and fingers of the right hand held in the Karana mudra, warding off evil, I would have had a tough time guessing who this represented.
We nearly did not go to the museum; three weeks is not a long time in Beijing if you are also in meetings most of the time. The museum is not billed as one of the must-sees. After our visit we thought it is unfairly neglected. In any other city it would be one of the star sights.
The immense building has eight large exhibition halls on each of its four floors, and more in the basement. We knew we didn’t have time to see everything, so our list of priorities was based on an abstract idea of classical Chinese art: ceramics, paintings, statues and jade. Each of these collections was enormous. We missed much, and we plan to visit the museum again when we come back to Beijing.
The question of authenticity strikes me every time I walk through a hutong recommended by a guide book. These are, without exception, hutongs which have been converted into food and bar streets. They are crowded with Chinese youth and tourists. Nothing remains of the original hutongs. Those are full of local life, children playing in the streets, older people sitting around, men and women going about their daily life, chatting. The repurposed hutongs are dissociated from the life of the city, and look like a bar street anywhere else in the world, sometimes glitzy, sometimes sleazy, like the photo above.
They satisfy a notion of conservation according to which authenticity resides in the material. The notion that change in usage can render the neighbourhood inauthentic does not strike the self-congratulatory guidebooks.
The Chinese art scene is red hot. In the last decade there have been influential shows of Chinese contemporary art around the world. This art is being bought locally and supported by the government, most visibly in the form of public art commissioned by municipal governments.
I found that contemporary Chinese painting has to negotiate a tightrope. On the one hand it may fail by giving up an unique Chinese visual sensibility and merge into a western contemporary movement. On the other, the Chinese visual history may overwhelm any attempt to modernize. In walking through Shanghai’s M50 or Beijing’s 798 art districts we did not see a single ink drawing showing cars, buses, or cities. There was, however, a very clever calligraphic take on Mondrian.
I find that the cleverest and the most innovative work is being done by sculptors. Three random works which caught my eye are pictured above. These are not, by any means, the most influential works of Chinese sculpture. The first is an edgy representation of a (pink!) spider, the second a clever take on bonsai, the third a quirky quote of classical Greek sculpture. Perhaps the freedom to explore is related to the fact that Chinese sculpture carries less of a cultural load than painting or ceramics.
Dragons figure very prominently in Chinese culture. They are clearly the champion amongst animals, and may even beat humans. Emperors liked to associate themselves with dragons to make it clear to lesser forms of humans that they are superior. Chinese dragons do not seem to have wings. They are said to be creatures of water, although they are also associated with fire, as in the image above (from the nine-dragon screen in the Forbidden City).
The Pisou is a different kind of a dragon. It eats money and gives out nothing. So if you believe in Fengshui then you would like to keep a couple of them in the house, but make sure that they face outwards. Then they will bring in money. Never make the mistake of having them facing inwards, because then they eat up your money. You can recognize them in temples because people stuff money into their mouths. The fine and well-fed specimen shown above comes from the Confucius Temple (Kong Miao) near Yong He Gang.
The Bixi must be a gentle creature. A hybrid of a turtle and a dragon, it performs a turtle’s job of holding up pillars. But since it is also a dragon, it only holds up pillars with imperial edicts. This uncomplaining individual holds up a pillar inside the Kong Miao temple celebrating an emperor’s bloody victory in a war.
Hybridisation reaches an ultimate with the Kylin, which has a dragon’s head, a lion’s tail, the hooves of an ox, antlers of a deer and fish-scales all over its body. This magical animal is a powerful protector with its ability to repel evil and punish wickedness. The lion is an important beast, of course. A pair of them protects many of the gates in the Forbidden City, but it is a lesser creature. Low enough in the hierarchy that they can be seen alongside entrances to the fancier shops and restaurants all over the city.
Although the tiger is an important beast, it is hardly seen in decorations. The phoenix is the symbol of the empress, and although nearly as powerful as the dragon, is seen much less often. The heron figures prominently in imperial settings, symbolising patience and long life. The turtle, almost as important as the dragon, holds up pillars and heavy things, but also symbolises long life. So much so that turtle soup is supposed to be very good for you even today.
Near the north gate of the Summer Palace grounds, outside Beijing, I saw an all-women musical group playing this mystery instrument. It has a lovely mellow sound. The double lobed chamber gives on to three flute-like stems with openings which you can finger. I sat and listened for half an hour while The Family went climbing the Longevity Hill. Other audience came and went. Most listened in silence, some clapped at the end of a piece. I waited until The Family came back and joined me. We stayed a while, and then had to leave.
Does someone know the name of this instrument?